KEEPING THE SEASON WELL

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...
Illustration by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(I posted this some three years ago)

Winter, as I have written earlier, is the most austere season of the year. Because of that, it is a time when contrasts have great significance — warmth amid cold, food amid hunger, shelter amid none, movement amid stillness, light amid darkness, sound amid silence.

Such contrast is at the root of the famous line from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

…a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

That is not just the Yuletide season; it is winter. That is why the joy of the holidays has such great significance against the background of winter. I do not think that those who celebrate the great Midwinter Festival — call it Yule or call it Christmas or something else — in countries where the air is warm and there is plenty and abundance in Nature in the month of December, can ever really feel or express the great significance that the holiday has in places where the month is filled with cold, with frost, with snow and ice.

That is because it is the great contrast with the cold and scarcity that gives Yuletide its particular significance —

… a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.”

Some people make the mistake of thinking that if one celebrates Yule, the “non-Christian” aspect of the holiday, one must forget about everything associated with Christmas. There are even those who feel that people who call the holiday Christmas should not be allowed to wish others, who may not call it by the same name, “Merry Christmas.” The world is becoming too bound by such “politically-correct” rules.

My feeling is that such an attitude is quite contrary to the spirit of the season. As I have said, I celebrate the holiday as Great Yule, the Midwinter Festival, the Winter Solstice, but when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I wish the same back to them, because underneath it all we are celebrating the same thing: The season when the light is reborn out of the darkness of winter, the season of hope and joy and of realizing our common humanity. To Christians this is expressed in the birth of a miraculous, bright infant who brings peace and joy to the world in the midst of winter. That is essentially the same as for those who celebrate Yule, the time when the days have reached their shortest, when darkness has spread to its greatest length, and then suddenly at the Solstice there is a change, and once again light returns with the promise of another eventual spring. And of course there is even more to it than that, feelings and experiences that touch the deepest parts of our nature.

So when I see a nativity scene, I see a symbol. Yes, for some people it can mean a narrow, dogmatic, exclusive attitude, but it should not mean that for us. The practice of hokku goes beyond a dogmatic attitude toward life. That is why I always emphasize that the spirituality of hokku is a non-dogmatic spirituality. It goes beyond beliefs and relies on personal experience.

So when, at the end of A Christmas Carol, we find the words of Tiny Tim repeated,

“God Bless Us, Every One!”

we need not be literal theists to share in the spirit of that exclamation. We may understand the term “God” to mean numerous different things, and many of us may not use that term at all for what we understand the phrase to mean. But we can certainly share in the spirit of wishing well to all, even while knowing that we live in a world filled with illness and want and violence and death. Yuletide takes us — at least for a time — beyond that to a deeper realm in which, as Julian of Norwich wrote,

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

And there is something helpful and healing in just having the thought in one’s mind, whether we put it in the words of Tiny Tim or in that of Buddhism:

May all beings be happy; may all beings be peaceful; may all beings be liberated.

That is the sentiment at the deepest level of the holiday, whether one calls it Yuletide or Christmas or simply the Winter Solstice. However we may keep it and whatever we may call it, such a sentiment, if it penetrates deeply into our being, turns us into individuals more like the altered Scrooge, who after his time “among the spirits” became one of whom it was said,

… that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

We should never confuse this keeping of the festival well with commercialism, though of course that is what it has become in our time, when people have lost touch with the deeper things of life. It is up to us to find within ourselves what it means to keep the Yuletide season well. It is a part of our spiritual journey.

David

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SNOW AND THE POETRY OF NO POETRY

One of the most beautiful Christmas carols is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” with words by Christina Rossetti, set to wonderfully appropriate music by Gustav Holst.  Most of the words have specific religious content and are of little interest to me here.  But the first verse is very good as a winter poem, very evocative and very concrete, both characteristics often contributing to good poetry:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

One of the best things about the verse is its simplicity.  In the 19th century, people often preferred their poetry florid, and many came to expect such roundabout speech of poetry.  That is why so much of it is looked on as unappealing and out-of-date today.  Even the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whitter often went too far in that direction, as he does in his long winter poem Snowbound, which helps to explain why it is so seldom read now.  All too often Whittier strained the language to create a rhyme.  Nonetheless, some way into it we find these lines:

And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

That is Whittier — very uneven writing in which good lines mingle with language stretched too far.  In the segment just given, we could really dispense with all but these effective words:

No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

It is almost a hokku.  In fact it inevitably reminds me of one of the best winter hokku, by Hashin, though the image evoked is somewhat different:

No sky nor earth,
Only snow
Ceaselessly falling.

And I cannot resist adding to this one of very best hokku of Chiyo-ni:

In field and hill
Not one thing moves;
The snowy morning.

That is Chiyo-ni’s version of Whittier’s “universe of sky and snow.”  Her verse is particularly effective not only because of its simplicity, but because it reveals the nature of winter so very well — winter being the most yin season — so it is expressed superbly by whiteness, cold, inactivity and silence — and Chiyo has managed that here, far better than she tends to manage things in many of her other verses.

I want to finish up this little appreciation of cold and snow by adding an effective hokku by Chora:

The windy snow —
It blows about me
As I stand.

Personal pronouns are seldom used in hokku, but here “me” is fine, because each person becomes the “me,” and sees and feels the cold and whiteness of the snow blowing and whirling about.   In this verse there is only a universe of snow — above, below, and all around — much as in the excellent verse by Hashin.

For those of us raised in northern climes, Winter is frost and snow.  Without at least the first, winter does not seem like winter, and fortunate is the person who has the second as well, even if only for a day or two.  There is much poetry in both, whether one expresses it in hokku or in longer forms of verse — but to me the best verses are those which are very concrete and speak of things and actions — the “thing-event,” without the addition of superficial “poetry” by the writer.  That enables us to appreciate the poetry of the thing-event itself, the poetry of no poetry, which to me is the best poetry of all.

I hope you all are enjoying this Yuletide season.

David

IT’S ABOUT TIME: THE HOKKU YEAR

The seasons are very important to hokku.  But when we look a bit closer, we find we have both formal and natural calendars:

The old traditional European calendar — now a formal calendar — was divided into four seasons, each with a festival at its beginning, its middle, and its end.  The end point also marks the beginning of the next season.  I give it here using traditional English and Irish names.  The notation “The first week” indicates that the day on which it begins had some variation in old usage.

Spring:

Begins with Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  1st week of February.
Midpoint:  Spring Equinox, March 20/21.
End:  the evening before May Day (Bealtaine pr. BYAL-tuh-nuh).  1st week of May.

Summer:

Begins with May Day (Bealtaine).  1st week of May.
Midpoint:  Midsummer’s Day — the Summer Solstice, June 20/21.
End:  The evening before Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa pr. LOO-nuh-suh), August 1.  1st week of August.

Autumn:

Begins with Lammas (Harvest Home — Lughnasa), August 1.  1st week of August.
Midpoint:  Autumn Equinox, September 21/22.
End: the evening before  Samhain pr. SOW-uhn), November 1, marked by Halloween on October 31st.  1st week in November.

Winter:

Begins with Samhain, November 1st.  The 1st week in November is marked by Bonfire Day.
Midpoint:  The Winter Solstice  Midwinter’s Day — Great Yule, December 21/22.
End:  The evening before Candlemas (Imbolc), February 1st.  The 1st week in February.

We can simplify the traditional calendar for the purposes of hokku:

Spring:

Spring begins:  Around February 1st.
Spring deepens:  Around March 20/21.
Spring ends Around May 1st.

Summer begins:  Around May 1st.
Summer deepens:  Around June 20/21.
Summer ends:  Around August 1st.

Autumn / Fall begins:  Around August 1st.
Autumn / Fall deepens:  Around September 21/22.
Autumn / Fall ends:  Around November 1st.

Winter begins:  Around November 1st.
Winter deepens:  Around December 21 /22.
Winter ends:  Around February 1st.

Now you may be thinking that makes no sense.  Spring, where you are, may begin in May!  The preceding calendars are “formal” — the first astronomical and the second meteorological.   But in hokku, with its lack of artificiality, we may be flexible and informal.  The seasons are not the same in all places.  Winter comes earlier in mountain regions than in lowlands, and spring comes later.

The so-called “meteorological calendar” recognizes, for example, that though the time of maximum sunlight comes at Midsummer, nonetheless its effects are not felt until some four weeks later.  That shifts the seasons, loosely speaking, by about a month.  We then have a calendar like this:

Spring:
Begins:  March
Midpoint: April
Ends:  May

Summer:
Begins:  June

Midpoint:  July
Ends:  August

Autumn / Fall:
Begins:  September
Midpoint:  October
Ends:  November

Winter:

Begins:  December
Midpoint:  January
Ends:  February

Given these different approaches to the seasons, which is the writer of hokku to follow?

The answer is simple.  Use the traditional formal calendar for times and seasons and celebrations, and with that, use a “natural” and flexible calendar that  reflects the seasonal changes of Nature where you are.  We all know that spring does not really begin punctually on February 1st or March 1st or at the Spring Equinox in the natural world.  If you first see sprouts and buds poking through the earth some time in February, that is when your spring begins.  If it happens in March, that is when your spring begins.  Go with the natural climate and weather where you are, which may be very different from the natural calendar of other people living in other regions.  Some very warm parts of the world may have only two main seasons, a dry season and a rainy season.  One is their “summer,” the other their “winter.”

I live in a temperate and moderate climate much like that of the British Isles, so it is no problem for me to follow the old traditional calendar, with Spring beginning with its first signs in February — though in some years, February can be a very cold month.

The traditional calendar provides a pleasant way to maintain a connection with our ancestors and their seasonal times and celebrations, but we should pay close attention to the “natural” calendar where we live as well.   So we can celebrate the important old “Quarter Days” — the Winter Solstice (Great Yule), the Spring Equinox, the Summer Solstice (Midsummer’s Day), the Autumn Equinox — and we can also celebrate the old “Cross-Quarter Days” — Candlemas, May Day, Lammas, and Samhain (marked by Halloween the night before).  But in addition, we always keep a close eye on what is actually happening in Nature, and on when it is happening.  That is our real guide to the seasons in hokku.

So here, without attached dates, is the “natural” calendar of hokku, which you apply to each year and region a bit differently.  But the order remains the same:

SPRING:
Spring begins
Spring deepens
Spring departs

SUMMER:
Summer begins
Summer deepens
Summer departs

AUTUMN / FALL:
Autumn begins
Autumn deepens
Autumn departs

WINTER:
Winter begins
Winter deepens
Winter departs

See how very simple it is?  When you see the signs of spring beginning in Nature, that is when it begins for your hokku.  When you see it advancing, that is when spring deepens in your hokku.  And when you begin to see the changes that signify its ending and the transition to another season near, that is when spring is departing in your hokku.  Just apply this principle to each season.

THE YIN AND YANG OF THE SEASONS

The principles of Yin and Yang and their interactions and transformations give us the seasons of the year.  You will recall that Yin is cold, Yang warm.  Yin is passive, Yang active.  Yin recedes, Yang advances.  Yin is wet, Yang is dry.  Yin is still, Yang moving.  Yin is silence, Yang is sound.  Yin sinks, Yang rises.

Remembering also that when Yin or Yang reaches its farthest point — its maximum — it begins to change into its opposite, we are now ready to look at the real calendar — the seasons according to Yin and Yang.

Midwinter is ultimate Yin.  At this point Yin reaches its maximum and begins to change into its opposite.  Yang first begins to grow within it.  So Midwinter is a pivotal point, the lowest on the turning wheel of the year.

Its opposite is Midsummer, when Yang reaches its maximum and then begins to change into its opposite.  Yin begins to grow within it.  So Midsummer also is a pivotal point — the very height of summer, when it then begins its long decline into winter.

The Spring Equinox — a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of growing Yang, because it comes after Midwinter.  Yang continues to grow until Midsummer, when it then begins to change into its opposite.

The Autumn Equinox — again a time when day and night are of equal length — is nonetheless a time of decreasing Yang and growing Yin, because it comes after Midsummer.  Yin continues to increase until Midwinter, when the cycle begins again.

We see, then, that the seasons are in constant change and movement as Yin and Yang interact with one another.  As Yang increases, Yin declines.  When Yang reaches its ultimate, Yin begins to increase within it, and Yang declines.  This is a perpetual cycle, the turning Wheel of the Year.  We can look at the seasons like this:

Winter: Yin
Spring:  Growing Yang
Summer:  Yang
Autumn /Fall: Growing Yin

So we see there are two Yang seasons — spring and summer — and two Yin seasons — autumn and winter.

All of this has profound significance in hokku.  Hokku is the verse of the seasons, so whatever the apparent subject of a verse, the real subject is the season in which the verse is written.

That means every hokku should manifest and express the qualities of the season.  That is why in spring we may talk about budding flowers, in summer about the heat, in autumn about falling leaves, and in winter about snow.  These are just some very obvious examples of seasonal manifestations.  The seasons actually manifest themselves in hokku in a multitude of ways, which is why the possibilities for hokku are endless.

David

KEEPING THE SEASON WELL

Winter, as I have written earlier, is the most austere season of the year.  Because of that, it is a time when contrasts have great significance — warmth amid cold, food amid hunger, shelter amid none, movement amid stillness, light amid darkness, sound amid silence.

Such contrast is at the root of  the famous line from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

“…a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

That is not just the Yuletide season; it is winter.  That is why the joy of the holidays has such great significance against the background of winter.  I do not think that those who celebrate the great Midwinter Festival — call it Yule or call it Christmas or something else — in countries where the air is warm and there is plenty and abundance in Nature in the month of December, can ever really feel or express the great significance that the holiday has in places where the month is filled with cold, with frost, with snow and ice.

That is because it is the great contrast with the cold and scarcity that gives Yuletide its particular significance —

“… a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that if one celebrates Yule, the “non-Christian” aspect of the holiday, one must forget about everything associated with Christmas.  There are even those who feel that people who call the holiday Christmas should not be allowed to wish others who may not call it by the same name “Merry Christmas.”  The world is becoming too bound by such “politically-correct” rules.

My feeling is that such an attitude is quite contrary to the spirit of the season.  As I have said, I celebrate the holiday as Great Yule, the Midwinter Festival, the Winter Solstice, but when someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” I wish the same back to them, because underneath it all we are celebrating the same thing:  The season when the light is reborn out of the darkness of winter, the season of hope and joy and of realizing our common humanity.  To Christians this is expressed in the birth of a miraculous, bright infant who brings peace and joy to the world in the midst of winter.  That is essentially the same as for those who celebrate Yule, the time when the days have reached their shortest, when darkness has spread to its greatest length, and then suddenly at the Solstice there is a change, and once again light returns with the promise of another eventual spring.  And of course there is even more to it than that, feelings and experiences that touch the deepest parts of our nature.

So when I see a nativity scene, I see a symbol.  Yes, for some people it can mean a narrow, dogmatic, exclusive attitude, but it should not mean that for us.  The practice of hokku goes beyond a dogmatic attitude toward life.  That is why I always emphasize that the spirituality of hokku is a non-dogmatic spirituality.  It goes beyond beliefs and relies on personal experience.

So when, at the end of A Christmas Carol, we find the words of Tiny Tim repeated,

God Bless Us, Every One!

we need not be literal theists to share in the spirit of that exclamation.  We may understand the term “God” to mean numerous different things, and many of us may not use that term at all for what we understand the phrase to mean.  But we can certainly share in the spirit of wishing well to all, even while knowing that we live in a world filled with illness and want and violence and death.  Yuletide takes us — at least for a time — beyond that to a deeper realm in which, as Julian of Norwich wrote,

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

And there is something helpful and healing in just having the thought in one’s mind, whether we put it in the words of Tiny Tim or in that of Buddhism:

May all beings be happy; may all beings be peaceful; may all beings be liberated.

That is the sentiment at the deepest level of the holiday, whether one calls it Yuletide or Christmas or simply the Winter Solstice.  However we may keep it and whatever we may call it, such a sentiment, if it penetrates deeply into our being, turns us into individuals more like Scrooge, who after his time “among the spirits” became one of whom it was said,

… that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

We should never confuse this keeping of the festival well with commercialism, though of course that is what it has become in our time, when people have lost touch with the deeper things of life.  It is up to us to find within ourselves what it means to keep the Yuletide season well.  It is a part of our spiritual journey.

David

DECEMBER AND YULETIDE

December will soon begin, and with it comes the holiday season.

How does one deal with holidays in hokku?  The same way one deals with a season.  A holiday verse is like a miniature seasonal verse — in other words, it should express the character of the holiday, how it manifests — with emphasis always upon Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

The most important holidays of the year come in December — in the winter.  Why is that?  It is because in older times, when people lived closer to Nature and the seasons, December was the time when the days were at their shortest, and darkness seemed to threaten the world.  So people needed a time of hope and cheer and encouragement, and they began to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun in the darkest part of winter, telling themselves that light and warmth would come again to the world.

Some of us still celebrate the holidays in that old way — remembering and celebrating the Winter Solstice, that point in the wheel of the year when the days stop growing shorter and begin once more to grow longer — Wintersonnenwende, as it is called in German — the time when the sun “turns” in winter, and the light of day again begins to lengthen.  In English it is often called the Winter Solstice, from Latin solstitia, meaning the time when the sun “stands still” — that critical point when it seems to pause in the lowering of its arc across the southern sky before reversing.

There should be nothing new in this to students of hokku, who will remember that when either of the two elements — Yang or Yin — reaches its ultimate point, then it changes into its opposite.  That is exactly what happens at the Winter Solstice.  The growing yin of decreasing light changes into its opposite, and the “yang” day begins to grow longer again in comparison to the “yin” night.

I prefer the old term “Yule,” which is the word still used in Scandinavian countries for what others may call Christmas.  Have you ever thought that celebrating the birth of Christ near the time of the Solstice is just another symbolic way of celebrating the encouraging return of light and hope?  The early Christians just adapted the older holiday to their use, so “Christmas” is just Yule under another name — as we see in the line from the well-known seasonal song,

Troll the ancient Yuletide carol.

And of course the other line,

See the blazing Yule before us.

The “blazing Yule” is of course the Yule log, an old tradition of the holiday, obviously connected with light and warmth.

So the Winter Solstice is Yule, and the whole holiday period is Yuletide — the time of Yule.  I tend to think of it as the Twelve Days of Yule, beginning with the day of the Solstice and continuing on to New Year’s Day.  That whole period for me is Yuletide — a time to be happy and hopeful.

It is also a time to think of others, which is something that is particularly emphasized in the wonderful old black and white movie based on the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol.  In spite of the latest Hollywood effort, the absolute best and definitive version of this kindly story is that in which the British actor Alastair Sim is “Scrooge,” the stingy, “rational,” selfish part of all of us.  So do not bother with other versions — just go that unsurpassed old version — and be sure it is in the original black and white, not any “colorized” attempt.  It teaches us that the holiday time is not a time to focus on the “self,” but rather a time to focus on others.  That is a very “hokku-like” attitude, and very much in keeping with the spirituality of hokku.

So, whether we call it Yule or Christmas or Noël or something else, the holiday season of December can provide some interesting hokku if we pay close attention to it.

Take one of the most pleasant seasonal songs, In the Bleak Midwinter:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Regular readers know that I often lament the use of metaphor and simile in verse, but it is really just the misuse or poor use of it to which I object.  It is used very effectively in these lines.  We could make one or more hokku of it, of course dropping the similes:

Bleak midwinter;
Earth is hard,
Water frozen.

That is a bit like the early hokku of Sōgi that present two things unified by a third, which in this case is the first line.  Making hokku like this does not, of course, prevent us from enjoying and appreciating the original verse, which had a different purpose.  And no matter which one likes better, we can still enjoy our own efforts based on an original, for example,

Bleak midwinter;
Snow falls
Upon snow
.

We should generally only write hokku based on other verses if they also faithfully reflect the character of the season and our own experience.

So as the days of Yule approach, we can think about not only winter hokku, but also holiday hokku, a subcategory of their own.

“December” comes to us from Latin, in which it means simply “Tenth month.”  It reminds us of old Quaker reckoning, in which the months were numbered, as were the days of the week.  For the Quakers, December was “Twelfth Month”

Going a bit farther back, our ancestors were more expressive — “Yule Moon,” “Wolf Moon,” and “Winter Moon,” as well as “Holy Moon.”  “Moon” is the origin of our “month,” which was originally based on the phases of the moon.

So December, “Yule Month,” is the first “real” month of Winter.  As part of winter, it again raises the possibility for good hokku of contrast — light amid darkness, warmth amid cold, and other such things.  And it brings with it the possibility also for holiday hokku.

David